US Astronomers Skip NASA Meeting To Protest China Exclusion

Several prominent astronomers have decided to boycott a NASA conference in November after six Chinese researchers were barred from attending.

AsianScientist (Oct. 14, 2013) – Several prominent astronomers have decided to boycott a NASA conference in November after six Chinese researchers were barred from attending because of national security concerns.

The Second Kepler Science Conference (KSC2), scheduled to take place at the space agency’s Ames Research Center in California, will focus on NASA’s exoplanet-hunting Kepler space telescope program.

But Chinese researchers, including those who worked at U.S. universities and other institutions, were denied attendance to the meeting by organizers. This was done in accordance with a U.S. Congressional law passed in March 2011 that prohibits government funds from being used to host Chinese nationals at NASA facilities.

“The policies that led to their exclusion have had a negative impact on such scientific meeting. We strongly feel that it is wrong to exclude scientists on the basis of nationality for a meeting that welcomes free and open exchange of scientific ideas,” the organizers said.

Several prominent exoplanet researchers, including Debra Fischer of Yale University and Geoff Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley, said that they will skip the meeting in protest.

Fischer told the state-run Xinhua news agency that she learned about the Congressional legislation when an application by her Chinese postdoctoral fellow, Wang Ji, was rejected.

“The meeting is about science and planets around stars, not about national defense. There is no classified information – it is all publicly available data,” Fischer wrote in an email. “I sent notice that my team at Yale University was formally boycotting the meeting. Some of my esteemed colleagues in the community agreed with this position, including Prof Geoff Marcy at UC Berkeley.”

In an interview with British newspaper, The Guardian, Marcy said that “the meeting is about planets located trillions of miles away, with no national security implications.”

Responding to the furor, Charles Bolden, NASA administrator, said the six applications will be reviewed once the U.S. government reopens after its recent shutdown.

To clarify the position of the U.S. Congress, Frank Wolf, chairman of the House Appropriations sub-committee and author of the 2011 law, sent a letter to Bolden stating that the law “primarily restricts bilateral, not multilateral meetings and activities” with the Chinese government or their companies, and “places no restrictions on activities involving individual Chinese national unless those are acting as representatives of the Chinese government.”

Oct. 21 update: The six Chinese researchers who were banned from attending the conference have received a letter of clarification from the event organizers informing them of a revised decision.

According to the state-run Xinhua news agency, which obtained a copy of the letter from one of the researchers, the letter said:

“A few weeks ago, you received an email… noting that we were unable to accommodate your request to attend the Second Kepler Science Conference at the NASA Ames Research Center. We have since been able to clarify the intent of the referenced legislation and are pleased to inform you that this decision has been reversed and your paperwork is being reviewed for clearance. We hope you will be able to join us and celebrate the science enabled by Kepler.”


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: NASA Goddard Photo and Video/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

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